Depending upon whom you ask, the answer might be “Everyone!” Travel agents, now often described as travel advisors or travel professionals, were until recently a group considered to be on the endangered species list. They were increasing in age, decreasing in numbers and giving way to an assortment of technological and behavioral changes dictating how consumers planned and booked travel. That’s all changing. Is it hard to believe? Not really. What is surprising is the type of consumer who is showing a rapidly growing propensity to use a travel agent: Millennials!
Millennials are not the only ones discovering the value of travel advisors’ savvy, but they’re doing it for some interesting reasons. Ting Ting Yan, Google Travel’s Senior Marketing Strategist, herself a Millennial and an avid researcher, shared some thoughts on the subject.
“It is a fascinating phenomenon and driven in part by 1) humans wanting to talk to humans, i.e. personalization, 2) millennials and boomers both booking more complicated trips that require human guidance and interference; and 3) a leaning toward purchasing experiences versus material goods.”
US travel & hospitality marketing firm MMGY Global confirms that more Millennials (34%) are leading the way with using travel agents to book their trips. It turns out that the more expensive the travel ticket, the greater the likelihood that the purchaser will reach out to a professional travel advisor. MMGY demonstrated that since these travelers are vacationing more often and spending more on leisure travel than those booking on their own, travel agent users are turning out to be a more favorable segment for both destinations and travel service providers. What’s more, there are big dollars involved.
In this article, MMGY found that during the past three to four years, and 2016 in particular, there has been a huge spike – a 50% increase – in the number of travelers who plan to use a travel agent. It indicated that 9 million US travelers intend to contact a travel professional to help them book a trip this year and as a result, can inject a juicy $83.7 billion into the travel agency distribution channel.
MMGY observed that travelers are also browsing online travel agent (OTA) sites during the planning phase of a vacation before visiting various supplier sites to make bookings. Here’s the catch though; only 13% of travelers said they would actually book their vacations on these sites, which is down from 35% of travelers last year.
The shift isn’t bound by geography
The London-based Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) states that during the past 12 months there has been a shift away from booking directly with service providers, to booking with a travel agent. In 2013, 41% of British travelers booked at least one overseas holiday directly with a service provider (e.g. British Airways or Hilton Hotels). Within the same period, more travelers booked both overseas holidays and domestic holidays with a travel agent, either online or on the high street. ABTA also points out that reservations with general holiday booking websites have stayed constant, while direct bookings with tour operators have improved slightly.
For the UK travel market, ABTA states that high street travel agents are mostly popular among 35-44 year olds, with 28% of travelers booking a holiday abroad in this way. Apparently those booking family holidays favor the benefits of face-to-face contact.
Surprisingly, travel agents are also predominantly favorable with younger consumers aged 16-24 with 18% using a high street travel agent and 36% using an online travel agent to book at least one overseas holiday. Travelers aged 65 and over were most likely to book directly with a tour operator; in fact 43% used that method to book an overseas holiday.
What is behind this shift back to travel agents?
According ABTA, travel agents are most valued for the ease of booking (51%), for saving time (46%) and for saving money (41%). ABTA’s Chief Executive, Mark Tanzer states: “It is encouraging to see more holidaymakers using travel professionals to book their holiday. When family finances are tight we know that they are also looking for that extra security that booking with a travel agent or tour operator can bring. People may perhaps be realizing that DIY holidays are time consuming to put together and value having someone else do the hard work for their holiday.”
In the US, MMGY Global’s research shows that the typical travel agency client is 39 years old, married with children, with an annual household income of $145,875. Their main reasons cited for choosing a travel agent include expertise, trust and ease. However, 86% also stated they prefer using a travel agent because it gives them more control over the trip, and 79% think that a travel agent will find the best price.
Specialization also matters. Travel Market Report highlights that travel agents normally specialize in niche markets. This enables them to provide more insight into a certain destination or segment of travel, such as LGBT, special interest, or romance travel. Travel professionals also dedicate more time getting to know the client to make custom fit recommendations to suit particular needs.
Travel industry gurus are confirming this phenomenon. Gay Myers of Travel Weekly states “travel agents are needed now more than ever as discerning consumers seek more customized vacation options rather than just fly and flop.” Gay continues: “The growth in specialized markets such as destination weddings, adventure travel, culinary travel, luxury travel, family and multi-generational travel, wellness travel, eco travel and volunturism requires a travel advisor, not an app nor an online booking platform with no guarantees if something goes wrong. Leisure time is scarce and highly valued. Each trip missed represents a vanished opportunity.”
Can travelers not find their own answers?
Molly Sumption of Molly’s Caribbean says Millennials are her main target audience. “While they like to research, when it comes to purchasing a vacation or honeymoon, they want to speak to an unbiased 3rd party who knows the product.” “Although Millennials are savvy and embrace technology, they harbor no illusions about its inaccuracies. They believe that resort websites in particular can be misleading.”
MMGY Global further points out that Millennials want to weigh in on the best deals and they want an expert who they can talk to and assist them with the process. Therefore, it is safe to assume that because there are so many travel websites out there, the travel booking process can be overwhelming. Consequently, Millennials are stepping away from the OTA model and rediscovering the value in meeting face-to-face with a professional travel expert.
Where the Caribbean stands in all this
The entire region with its fascinating diversity, but sometimes perplexing array of choices, welcomes the resurgence of travel agents. It is a gift to have a cadre of well-trained, easily accessible professionals who can help clients of all demographics to sift through the choices, find the best deals and most importantly, match the client to the right product. That’s the surest way to meet and indeed exceed the expectations of an increasingly discerning traveler. Just knowing where to go and what to do may not be enough. Sometimes a client needs to ask “Have you been there, and what was your experience?”
Gay Myers opines that “people want to do more, experience more, and come home with memories of more than just a beach and a soaking tub on the patio. There’s a big move in getting travelers out of the resorts and get them interacting with locals in the markets, at festivals, in rum bars and beach bars and music venues and local restaurants.
“A lot of travelers are not couch potatoes and they want to be active, from zip lining to horseback riding to scuba trips and fishing and going to polo matches or other sports events.” They want to visit the markets and look at the produce, take part in cooking classes and wine tastings, learn to roll a cigar or make their own perfume,” she further stated.
Often we find ourselves admitting that Gay Myers is right. The more the Caribbean encourages vacationers to get out and eat where we eat and do what we do, the richer the travel experience will be.
That also means having access to the right personal, professional advice. With the exception of the Caribbean Diaspora, many travelers to the Caribbean lack the cultural, familial and personal knowledge to discern the difference between cous cous and cou cou or between Bequia and Belize. An ocean of difference in every sense of the word. Because we’re not all the same, someone needs to explain that if you’ve seen one island, you’ve seen one island. Good travel agents do that.